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What is writing for?

J Mark Bertrand

7 Untitled Is the purpose of writing to communicate something to readers, or to mystify them? It’s been almost fifteen years, and James Miller’s article in the now-defunct Lingua Franca pitting clear communication (personified by George Orwell) against mystification-as-profundity (poster boy: Theodor Adorno) has stuck with me. First reading it fresh from grad school, where both perspectives were drilled into me with equal vigor, I’ve seen this either/or proposition reproduced in almost every argument over the goal of good writing that I’ve been dragged into since then. Whatever battle lines are drawn — literary vs. commercial, spiritual vs. secular — the old antagonists return to fight. Advocates of clarity are accused of dumbing ideas down, while advocates of mystery are chided for hiding their confused or commonplace thoughts behind a curtain of obfuscation.

I wish I could claim to have kept above the fray, but I’ve been a partisan more often than not — and for both sides, too, my allegiances shifting with the context. If I’ve switched sides back and forth, it’s not for lack of conviction. It’s just that neither side embodies what I’m actually attempting to do when I write fiction.

To me an unread story is a gesture of love left unconsummated.

Unrequited might seem a better word, but it’s not: there are books you haven’t read but for which you still feel affection. (Consider the American love affair with the Bible.) In some cases not having read the story keeps the love alive. The pages do not always contain what we’ve been led to believe.

As a reader I don’t seek consummation for reasons of clarity or mystification, although both sensations are part of the experience. What I look for is something closer to communion.

To me an unread story is like bread and wine left untasted on the table, an author’s gifts placed before readers out of a thwarted desire to know and be known.

Some of us don’t like to think of readers at all. We write for ourselves, telling the stories we’d like to hear. Art for art’s sake, with no hint of accommodating the audience. Mystification for its own sake, feeding your inner Adorno while your inner Orwell starves. This is a pose I’ve sometimes adopted, yet it seems more and more to be a mere shield against rejection: “You didn’t love me? That’s because you didn’t get me. This was never meant for you; you couldn’t have understood it.”

A story must communicate, or so they tell me. The question is, how? Must we follow the expected patterns, tap out only the approved rhythms, and keep culling the word horde until all the mystery is gone? Start thinking of what we do as mere communication and before long you find the reader can be quantified, reduced, understood –– and that a better term than reader is consumer. If writing for myself was a dead end, writing for consumers is even worse.

This is why, instead of communicating with readers, I want to commune.

I’m not aiming at blasphemy here, or even irreverence. It seems important to me that the creative act be understood in terms of incarnation, and the Christian Eucharist provides an apt metaphor. In spite of Walker Percy's belief that “the incarnational and sacramental dimensions of Catholic Christianity are the greatest natural assets of a novelist,” here I find Calvin’s notion of spiritual presence helpful. The author’s presence in the paper and ink or the pixel, though not physical, is nevertheless real in a way that can only be impoverished by ascribing it only to symbolism. Entering into the story is, at least for “worthy receivers,” to commune with an author who is actually, though spiritually, present in the work.

Somewhere between demystification and mystification for its own sake –– or perhaps I should say, somewhere above them –– there is a place for something both mystical and substantial, an experience of one another through words that has become almost a secret, a guilty pleasure none who know it feel entirely comfortable talking about. It does not always happen, but when it does, we remember why we read and write to begin with, just as there are moments in church with the taste of bread on the tongue and wine on the lips when we, for an instant, recover the true urge that brought us there.